Finger regeneration draws concern

Evolutionary adaptations have led to fascinating traits in certain groups of organisms, many that we wish to make applicable to humans. In the animal kingdom, some members of the phylum Echinoderms, like sea stars, are able to regenerate body parts that have been separated either voluntarily or by a predator. A sea star can grow a lost arm readily after detaching it from its body to either escape a predator or rid itself of a damaged limb. A similar trait has also evolved in certain snakes and lizards, now capable of readily regenerating their tails after losing them, a trait called “caudal autotomy.”

These phenomena fascinate scientists who wonder whether we can apply the basic principles of “regeneration” to humans. For people who have lost limbs, parts of their fingers or organs, or whose skin is severely damaged, regenerative medicine could completely change their lives. And some have already found a way to regenerate severed human body parts.

Take Lee Spievack, a Cincinnati hobby-store salesman, for example. Spievack says that he successfully grew back a portion of his middle finger that was sliced off by a model airplane propeller in an accident in August 2005.

“I pointed to [the model airplane],” Spievack recently recalled, “and said, ‘You need to get rid of this engine, it’s too dangerous.’ And I put my finger through the prop.”

The removed portion of his finger could not be found, so the emergency room doctor bandaged his hand and suggested a skin graft. Fortunately, Spievack’s brother is the founder of regenerative medicine company entitled ACell Inc. and a former Harvard surgeon. Dr. Alan Spievack gave his brother a powder created from pig bladder extracts used to help horses regrow ligaments. The powder, comprised of collagen and a few other substances, contains no pig cells, according to ACell scientific advisor Dr. Stephen Badylak, also a regeneration expert at the University of Pittsburgh. Dr. Spievack had already employed this powder on another man who had cut his fingertip off in an accident one year prior to Lee Spievack’s model plane incident. That man’s fingertip was successfully regenerated over four to six weeks, according to the doctor.

Naturally, scientists remain skeptical of this magical substance. While they do not deny that the tip of Lee Spievack’s finger has regrown, they believe it occurred naturally. “It appears to regenerate because new skin grows over the end of the finger—that’s a normal recovery,” Simon Kay, professor of hand surgery at the University of Leeds, told the BBC. “It can be utterly surprising how well it repairs after what appears to be a ghastly injury but it’s what you might expect from the most peripheral part of the body.”

Admittedly, it is difficult to understand what the powder does to signal the initiation of regeneration. But the very fact that we know little about the basic principles of regeneration, an established trait that has evolved multiple times in many groups of organisms, may represent our incomplete knowledge of the scientific practice. Studying this powder, whether it has contributed to the cause of the regeneration or not, may offer researchers a new perspective on regeneration. That, combined with studying existing traits in animals capable of this evolved talent, could lead to greater research advancements.

Emotion: enemy of science or friend of reason?

Does emotion belong in science? This simple question is one that many scientists would answer with a simple “no.” Emotion clouds rational thought, and should be avoided in favor of untainted observation of facts. When observing natural phenomenon of any type, the observer’s bias could colour the outcome, portraying an unrealistic picture of what was observed. In a quest for objective truth, emotion appears to be the enemy.

Many types of science are deeply tangled with emotion due to their subject matter. Dr. Harvey Armstrong, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at U of T, studies childhood sexual abuse. He sees no problem with incorporating emotion into his scientific research. “Human beings… are run by the limbic system,” he says, relaying insight into the difficulty of separating our feelings from any human endeavor (the limbic system is the neural network that supports emotion and behaviour).

Dr. Armstrong also believes that there is a total lack of emotion in the “hard” sciences. “All of the engineers I’ve run into are emotionally blind and deaf,” he noted fervently. While some level of disinterest is necessary for basic research, it is important to remember whom your findings will ultimately affect. “Who cares [about the age of the Earth]? If you’re likely to be shot on your street because people have not done appropriate things with kids and families, that’s rather more important,” Dr. Armstrong added.

The perceived separation of emotion and science in the physical sciences may not even truly exist. As soon as you step out of a laboratory (and usually before that), human emotion begins to infect lives. Many of the so-called “hard” sciences are afflicted with personal involvement as soon as they are applied to the real world. Nuclear physics as an academic discipline may not be an expressive activity, but as soon as its concepts are applied to nuclear energy or weapons, passions rise in a hurry. Dr. Ray Carlberg, Professor of Astronomy at U of T, commented “I don’t accept that the physical sciences…are not emotional.” Carlberg noted that all scientists are passionate about their work; otherwise, why spend long hours on tedious experiments?

Ideally, there would be a smooth transition from unbiased scientific observation to its caring, principled application. Still, this uneasy relationship between emotion and science will remain as long as scientists continue to ask questions.

The Decoder

The Code of Student Conduct defines those “standards of student behaviour” and “provisions for student discipline” that the Governing Council considers essential to the functioning of the university, which have nothing to do with academic matters (for that, there’s a separate code). There is some overlap between the code and other university regulations: in cases relating to sexual harassment, residence, and athletics, for example. In areas such as these, if a student commits an offense, the hearing will likely go to the tribunal specifically set up for that matter, though the head of that division has the option to turn it over to a Code of Conduct hearing. The code, which came into effect in 2002, applies to all university divisions, including the federated colleges, and all students (“students” are defined as anyone doing academic work for which they will receive a grade, anyone registered in a course or program of study, everyone entitled to a T-card, and post-doctoral fellows).

Regardless of whether you’ve read the code, if it can be shown that you could be reasonably expected to know the rules, the rules apply. The code is not meant to shelter “nor add necessarily” to civic responsibilities. Of course, the Criminal Code still applies to students, but the Code of Conduct applies on top of that, in cases “in which criminal or civil proceedings have not been taken or would not adequately protect the University’s interests and responsibilities.” According to Section 7 of the code’s preface, “Nothing in this Code shall be construed to prohibit peaceful assemblies and demonstrations, lawful picketing, or to inhibit freedom of speech as defined in the University.” Yet one of the many offenses the code covers is that of “disruption.” You’re allowed to peacefully picket, and (thanks, guys!) you’re allowed to be quiet, “But noise that obstructs the conduct of a meeting or forcible blocking of access to an activity constitutes disruption.”

As it turns out, you’re not really allowed to peacefully picket outside a meeting either, if that picketing “substantially interfere[s] with the communication inside.” Needless to say, nothing in the Code of Student Conduct covers the Governing Council’s responsibilities towards students.

Overcoming the Blues

On April 30, while the majority of campus was consumed by the stress of exams, the entire U of T football team had something to get excited about. Alongside coaches and staff, the team crowded the Blue and White Room of Varsity Arena to cheer on their co-captain, wide receiver, and top CFL prospect Mark Stinson. Stinson and his team watched the CFL Draft, hoping to see the Blues star player get drafted.

“It was pretty awesome. I was surrounded by a lot of great people and we had a lot of fun with it. Guys were making a pool of when I would get drafted, what team I would get drafted to,” said Stinson of the event. Unfortunately there was no clear winner in the pool, as Stinson was ultimately not drafted to a team. However, the guys did get to see their star player’s name flash across the screen mid-draft. TSN named Stinson one of the top five receiver prospects in the country. This title has a lot to do with Stinson’s stellar performance at last March’s CFL Draft Evaluation Camp held here in Toronto.

At the camp, Stinson impressed by consistently performing well in both tests and drills. Although he moved up on many scouts’ radars, it was not enough to get him drafted this year. Yet Stinson was not fazed by the results. Maintaining a positive outlook, Stinson stated that “to be drafted would be great; it’s such a huge accomplishment. But it doesn’t mean the door is closed, that there aren’t other avenues…the dream isn’t over. There are a lot of good things to not being drafted.”

One is the opportunity to focus on the Blues’ upcoming season. Now that the draft is over, Stinson says his number one goal is to lead his team to success next year. “It’s about getting the Varsity Blues back to where we used to be. That’s the most exciting part. Everyone should know is that we are gonna have a good season. We are gonna be very successful. We want to share that with the rest of the school.”

This confident attitude will benefit Stinson, increasing his chances of being drafted in the future. According to Jamie Barresi, running back coach of the Saskatchewan Rough Riders, it is important for prospects to be driven and productive. He explains, “it’s kind of like that Rocky thing, you know? You just got to fight your way through and hopefully you’ll get a chance and if you get a chance to go to camp then anything can happen.” And if anything, Stinson is a fighter. He is constantly battling through a barrage of negative publicity surrounding the Blues’ losing record to defend his team and to prove the skeptics wrong.

“For people that don’t give you credibility, it’s time to earn that,” says Stinson, adding that the Blues will earn respect through continued hard work and dedication. “It’s the guys that stay there and fight through [the pressure of being a Blue] and fight every week, those are the guys that I’m proud of.” Stinson assures, “The guys on the team understand what’s at stake and how to win. And it will happen this year.”

While Stinson is focused on improving his team, scouts are already looking at the hopeful prospects for the 2009 draft. Stinson, along with other U of T standouts, could be among those hopefuls. This past Saturday, McMaster University hosted the sixth annual East West Bowl, CIS’ all-star football game featuring the top prospects for next year’s draft. No less than three Varsity Blues were invited to participate in the event. Blues’ offensive lineman Cameron Deans, defensive back Matthew D’Souza, and receiver Jeff Laforge helped lead the East team to their first ever victory over the West with a final score of 25-12.

Next season, Mark Stinson looks to earn the Blues’ first victory in 49 games. It’s clear that the Blues have what’s required to make this long anticipated victory a reality. They have great players, drive, and determination. But most importantly, they have team camaraderie. Even in the midst of the draft excitement, Stinson was the first to acknowledge his teammates. “Being drafted isn’t necessarily for me, it’s for everyone who’s helped me go through this and who has provided some form of support or motivation or shares the same dream that I have.” Obviously, the Blues support each other through thick and thin. They’re a team that watches the draft together; they’re a team that loses together. And hopefully next season, they’ll be a team that wins together.

Admin lay academic charges

U of T appears to be continuing its crackdown on fee hike protesters. The administration has threatened four student leaders, including a governor, with action under the Code of Student Conduct over disruption of an April 10 Governing Council meeting. The move came after Toronto Police arrested 14 protesters involved in a March 20 sit-in at Simcoe Hall, following complaints filed by the administration. Twelve of the 14 are also being investigated under the student Code of Conduct.

“Clearly, what we are seeing on this campus is an unprecedented repression of students organizing,” said Farshad Azadian, an AlwaysQuestion organizer and one of the so-called “Fight Fees 14.” “Nobody is going to claim that the sit-in was perfectly organized. But the charges are ridiculous, and we have gathered lots of support,” Azadian added.

Student and staff unions have offered support for the accused and condemned the investigations as a campaign to silence dissent. “We have received support from Unite Here, CUPE Ontario, OCAP, OPIRG, several community groups, [and] from students from universities across Canada,” said Deena Dadachanji, a spokesperson for the accused.

Todd Gordon, a U of T professor in Canadian studies, said the charges amounted to a attack on debate. “When people in positions of power have no meaningful response to dissent, they resort to coercion,” said Gordon. “They hope they can stamp it out through heavy-handed tactics: scaring others away from future dissent, […]

and suffocating the movement by targeting those they see as the ‘leaders.’”

The university has acted to distance itself from the charges, laying responsibility on the police, who decided to charge the 14 after receiving evidence and complaints from the administration. “We referred the matter to Toronto Police for their assessment, they decided to lay charges,” said Rob Steiner, U of T’s chief media spokesperson.

But Dadachanji said the administration was involved in the arrests. “Fourteen people have been hand-selected by the university because of their positions as key organizers,” she said. “There is no way the Toronto Police could have known their ability to mobilize against issues. It’s clear that the university has played a hand.”

Dadachanji also claimed that the administration may have given personal information, such as the demonstrators’ email addresses and phone numbers, to police. Steiner was not available to comment on this allegation.

Students investigated under the Code of Conduct were notified during the second week of April. Shortly afterward, they received emails from Toronto Police telling them to turn themselves in to Division 52 headquarters. Most were held for several hours before being released on stringent bail conditions.

Steiner confirmed that protesters were being investigated under the code but declined to comment on specifics, saying that cases under student code are confidential.

At the April 10 GC meeting, student governor Alexandru Rascanu read from a petition against the proposed fee increases until he was stopped by chair John Petch. While governors are not usually given time-limits on speaking during the meeting, Petch ruled that reading out the petition did not contribute to the ongoing discussion on the fee increases. Student activists then took over, continuing to read the petition aloud until the meeting had to be adjourned and relocated.

Petch sent letters to Rascanu and three of the students who read out the petitions: UTSU president Sandy Hudson, former Arts & Science Students’ Union executive Alanna Prasad and former UTSU VP university affairs Michal Hay, who was also arrested for the sit-in protest.

In an April 29 letter, admin advised Hudson that they were considering action against her under the student code for “the persistent disruption of the meeting, despite calls to order by the Chair.”

Rascanu said that his letter called for him to meet with the chair about matters relating to the student code. At that meeting, he said, he was told the student code charges would be discussed by the GC’s executive committee on Monday, May 12.

“I think that me being under investigation is a far stretch of the situation in which the code should be used. It is a way to silence student leaders on campus,” said Rascanu, who did not comment on the specific nature of the allegations against him.

A petition demanding that all charges against students be dropped had gathered 1592 signatures online at press time. The petition was started by the Allies for Just Education, a group formed to support the 14 accused.

AJE plan to hold a rally at Old City Hall on June 3, when the 14 will appear at a hearing.

Former baseball star pitches great advice

What approach do great pitchers take when facing a batter? This question was posed during the Toronto Maple Leafs 40th home opener. The sun-drenched affair took place at Christie Pits on Sunday, May 4. Before the game, this reporter sat down with former Boston Red Sox great Luis Tiant, on hand alongside a number of Hall of Famers to throw out the opening pitch(es). Tiant was the only non-HOFer invited to participate, but what he lacked in accolades, he made up for in wisdom. A Cuban immigrant famous for his Fu Manchu mustache and love of cigars, Tiant explained how he faced batters during his playing career, cautioning that “you can’t show everything in your repertoire.” This applies to teaching as well as pitching, as he led young pitchers by example. Instead of dictating to athletes when and how to throw pitches, Tiant was concerned with how to approach big game situations. Tiant repeatedly stressed that baseball should be fun. Both pitchers and batters should enjoy every aspect of the game, and that is how he prepares for big games.

Interestingly, Tiant used the analogy of a batter when discussing his specific approach to baseball. “If you go 0 for 4 in a game, you won’t kill yourself afterwards. Next time out, you may go 4 for 4. You do not want to let the first game affect you.” After all, it is important to see the progress that you make. Tiant expressly stated that the size of a pitcher does not matter. Notably, one of Tiant’s most famous protégés is former Red Sox hurler Pedro Martinez, who is generously listed as 5’11. Tiant is also small for a pitcher, but he always remembered to not let big pressure intimidate him. Tiant also relayed the importance of having a heart and a great first pitch. Too often, the mental aspect of pitching is ignored.

That day, the Maple Leafs chose Drew Taylor, the son of former Major League pitcher Ron Taylor to start in his Intercounty debut. When I asked Taylor, a lefty who bears a significant resemblance to Brendan Fraser, about his approach to the game ahead, he replied that he would “throw strikes.” This seemed to run counter to the ways of the greats. However, he clarified that he would also throw “whatever the guy’s not looking for.” Taylor went on to pitch the Leafs to victory. After my afternoon on the field, it was clear how the Toronto Maple Leafs managed to attract so many wise pitchers to opening day. The fan-friendly yet competitive atmosphere of the Intercounty Baseball League requires serious dedication from its pitchers, but above all, as Luis Tiant stresses, they cannot forget to have fun.

GC raises tuition

Get ready to beg, borrow or steal. Governing Council voted on April 10 to approve tuition fee hikes, which will see an average increase of 4.27 per cent for domestic students and 6.6 per cent for international students. Fee increases have been an almost annual practice since the Harris government’s cutbacks to post-secondary funding in the 90s. After premier Dalton McGuinty ended a brief, two-year fee freeze in September 2006, activists have been campaigning for a reinstatement of the freeze. Last year, after GC voted to increase fees, financial reports showed a net income of $134.5 million on U of T’s operations.

The new fee hike has student unions worried that U of T will become less financially accessible.

Rob Steiner, U of T’s AVP of strategic communications, dismissed the possibility of financial barriers. “The university has an iron-clad accessibility guarantee that financial considerations will not keep you from either entering or completing a program you’re admitted into,” said Steiner. “A large amount of our budget goes into that guarantee.”

A bigger deterrent, according to Steiner, is the belief that university is more expensive than it actually is. “When folks go around pretending that there are 20 per cent fee increases, that’s fear-mongering,” he said. The whopping 23.5 per cent increase, the highest of the fee hikes, applies to international students entering the Masters music composition program, which Steiner called a “separate matter.”

“It has an unfortunate effect on people who don’t realize how accessible education already is,” he said.

UTSU VP external Dave Scrivener disagreed, saying that while students from the lowest-income groups can barely get by with financial aid grants, the fee hike would affect the middle class the most. “It’s the middle class that is not being allowed to access the grants,” he said, “and not being able to pay fees without a massive debt-load and a part-time job.”

Artsci calendar reshuffled

The Arts & Sciences Faculty Council has approved sweeping changes to the academic schedule, as well as curriculum requirements that will affect all programs of study.

Starting in September, Arts & Sciences programs will begin incorporating a whole new bag of tricks termed “degree objectives” into degree requirements. The faculty council proposed that programs implement additional requirements within five years.

The new criteria are meant to enhance academic learning by focusing on areas such as information literacy, communications, social ethics, and quantitative reasoning. “Achieving these degree objectives will prepare our graduates with the transferable skills necessary given the dynamic nature of the workforce and the world today,” said Suzette Stevenson, vice dean of students in Arts & Science, who oversaw the changes.

The restructuring of the academic calendar will take effect in September 2009. The bottom line: more free time. Final exams will not be scheduled after April 30, giving students a chance to find summer jobs that will actually look good on a resume. Both fall and winter semesters will receive an additional “study break”.

This move is meant to ease academic workload by providing students with as much time as possible to focus on classes, without having to worry about cramming for exams.

An “intersession” has also been carved into the calendar. Right before the summer session, students will have a chance to go on field studies or get international work experience.

Combining theories learned in lecture halls with practical and technical training sounds like a great idea. Giving students an extra week to catch up sounds even better. But if students receive more breathing room, only to have to complete another set of requirements, doesn’t that put us back at square one?